Happy Birthday Elliott Gould


Happy Birthday to one of the all-time greats and one of the coolest of the cool Elliott Gould.

From my 2019 New Beverly interview with Elliott Gould about The Long Goodbye -- on working with Sterling Hayden:

Elliott Gould: You know the history was that Bob cast Dan Blocker and then Dan Blocker died and it was almost the end of the picture. And then I thought about John Huston, but then Bob cast Sterling Hayden. And I asked to meet Sterling Hayden; I just wanted to sit alone with him. And in a dark room in the house that Bob had been living in…
KM: The house in Malibu…
EG: Yes, which was the Wade House [in the movie]. I was in a room like this, and he had recently come back from Ireland where he had some work with R.D. Laing… and so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him… So, at one point when we were in Pasadena working at the sanitarium where we find Sterling Hayden in that cottage that he’s in with Henry Gibson (you know, that specific cottage was where W.C. Fields lived the last part of his life…), And when Altman would be stressed… Sterling would say to me, I don’t know how he phrased it exactly, but, “Is the old man giving you a hard time?” something like that… And I said, “A little bit.” It didn’t have to do with the work but it probably had to do with my response to what Bob needed, and I’m always looking for something. And Sterling said, “Just vamp.” [And] what does vamp mean? It means, to hold time, meaning, when you vamp with music, you hold time.
KM: Sterling Hayden and you … your chemistry together is beautiful.
EG: And the kind of man that he was! That scene where we’re sitting down and [having the drink] … Bob had designed it so that the camera is circling the two of us. And we couldn’t even know whether it would be able to be edited, but I didn’t have any doubt, and I don’t think that Bob has doubt, and so we did that with the aquavit.
KM: And part of it was improvised?
EG: I knew there were certain pieces of information that had to be in that scene so I could help with that [improvising], otherwise it was just about getting to know and see this relationship between these two different generations of men, and that was pretty amazing…

Read the entire interview here.


Aquarium Drunkard: Play It as It Lays

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"Existentially, I'm getting a hamburger.”

I was interviewed by Eric Hehr for his excellent VIDEODROME column (read all of his essays) at the great Aquarium Drunkard to discuss one of my favorites -- Frank Perry’s masterful Play It As It Lays.

Talking Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Perry, and lots of driving in Los Angeles and more and more. 

From my interview:

I guess I really connected with this film because of how Perry explores everything: the enigmatic, the way we feel when depressed, the mystery and the ghosts; things that I frequently feel in Los Angeles. There is a beauty to that. I’m not sure if Frank Perry thought this was all beautiful in real life, but I think a lot of what is in this film is beautifully expressed and composed, like the snaking freeways. I could get into more specific shots and things like that because that’s important — they fuse with Maria’s search for her narrative. She’s almost like her own editor. Not surprisingly, Didion was fascinated by film editing, and Perry expertly conveys this with his innovative editing. Maria’s an actress and a model, but I feel that this is a woman who maybe really wants to be a writer. She’s trying to write her own life in a sense, and everyone else around her is interpreting her. Her husband is a director inspired by her story. She breaks through it all by telling her own truth, which is really interesting — that she bluntly says things. She cuts through everything.

Here's my essay on Play It as It Lays for the New Beverly.

And, thanks for the wonderful discussion, Eric. 

Read the entire interview here.

Marilyn’s Method: MM on Criterion

Marilyn’s Method: My piece for Criterion on Marilyn Monroe, her performances in The Misfits, Niagara & Bus Stop, specifically, and her journey and power as an actress and an artist:

“Do you want me to turn them loose?” This is what cowboy Perce asks a sad-eyed Roslyn in John Huston’s elegiac The Misfits (1961), and that one question about untying the mustangs he and fellow wranglers Gay (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach) have captured—beautiful horses who will be turned to dog food—is so extraordinarily moving in its quietly weighed delivery that it’s breathtaking. It’s moving because it’s Montgomery Clift asking the question, and because of the power of Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn and her chemistry with Clift. But it’s sublimely moving because of Roslyn’s preceding scene instigating the request—her scream in the desolate landscape, her testimony:

Killers! Murderers! You’re liars! All of you liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God’s country! Freedom! I pity you! You’re three dear, sweet, dead men!

That big, blistering moment is filmed in a gorgeous and almost unmerciful long shot, with a distant Monroe, her blond hair and denim in the desert; viewers fix their eyes to see her better as she rages—a brilliant choice by Huston. By forgoing a close-up, he makes Monroe’s speech feel almost unexpected and shocking, and, oddly, more powerful. There are three men who, throughout the movie, have observed this woman with bewilderment, lust, love, and anger. She’s represented multiple ideas, dreams, or wishes for them (the script was written by her soon-to-be ex-husband, playwright Arthur Miller), but she’s now screaming and nearly tearing her hair out—almost as if to make herself flesh and blood.

Marilyn as Roslyn espouses part of the movie’s thesis—a potential sledgehammer—without the directness feeling unnatural, underscoring the end-of-the-line lives these men lead and the simultaneous empathy and anger she feels toward them. Clift’s Perce, who is already feeling lousy about capturing the mustangs, so much so that he doesn’t even want to be paid for it, gazes with sadness and, perhaps, shame; Gable’s Gay looks on concerned, disquieted, and Wallach’s Guido, at that moment, is all annoyance and anger: “She’s crazy,” he says. “They’re all crazy. You try not to believe it because you need them.”


Read it all here.


Frank and Eleanor Perry's Last Summer

6a00d83451cb7469e201bb09890fe3970d-800wiFrom my piece that ran at the New Beverly:

Memories of adolescence can come to you in a multitude of ways. Some thoughts are often so hazy, and in many of us, so strange, that even happy reminiscences take on a peculiar sensation of both centered familiarity (we are all still who we are), our teenage years directly in our body and in our being, and yet, entirely remote. All that excitable, depressed or terrified youth has drifted so far off shore that one must stand on their toes and block the sun to see it bobbing in the water. Other times, it hits you like a sharp pain and you are living it all over again, right in your core. This can come to you happily but that rarely seems to be the case – wistfulness usually greets a nice memory. It’s the trauma, loneliness, alienation, guilt – those sensations – that overwhelm us while lost in thought or living through a crisis or from very little drama at all. You could be looking out of a car window or looking at a fish tank or talking to a grocery clerk who treats you like you’re 14 and something just overcomes you. You could, like John Cheever (writing in his journals), be walking outside:


“Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality.”

As Cheever so movingly observed, these are senses one can never escape – because, well, one just can’t. Frank Perry’s Last Summer is suffused with all of these impressions, a movie that reflects the sexually charged, weird, freeing and, at times, inexplicably perverse feelings that swirled in and around you as you were about to touch adulthood (which seems like it happens too fast). As you watch these teenagers on screen, you are right there with them, and yet, at the same time, you feel removed, observing from a distance. In direction, setting, texture, light and sound, the picture feels powerfully foggy, as if these are the last teenagers on earth, or a collection of sensitives we’ve conjured from our own memories. It’s quite an artistic and emotional feat – this in-body/out of body experience the movie manages to convey, a pull in and float out – and you drift along with these characters almost in a hallucinatory state. The sharper moments come to you like Cheever describing his young loneliness – they are “galling.”


The movie begins with what will appear to be a sad but sweet moment – two healthy, tanned, good looking blonde boys meet a lovely, bikini-clad, long-haired brunette girl on the beach at Fire Island as she leans over what appears to be a dead seagull. It’s actually still alive she tells them, with one remarking unconcerned, “Not for long.” In another movie, you might think immediately of innocence crushed or the kid’s yearning for the seagull to be free, but Perry (and his wife and collaborator, the great Eleanor Perry, who adapted the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s novel) are not trafficking in such thudding clichés. Already the picture feels different, edgier, and these kids appear like how teenagers actually are – more interested in the girl than in the seagull, the girl sizing up her power in this dynamic of two cute boys. Also, there appears to be no one else around – not on the beach anyway – no other kids at all – giving the picture an extra intense lyricism. There’s a dark undercurrent to the sunny exterior with the focus on just these kids – outsiders seem unwelcome or even alien. Later, one alien will eventually appear.

Sandy (Barbara Hershey) snaps back flippantly at the boys, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison), after requesting they help her move the gull off the beach, which one warns could give her rabies: “Rabies my ass!” she says. Certainly her looks are enough to interest them, but something about her ease with her body and informal exchanges, her intelligence is especially alluring to them, and they indeed help her bring that gull back to her mother’s beach house. You never see any of these kid’s parents in the movie, giving the picture a focused, particularly desolate feel, the kid’s alienation more trapped than exuberant.


Swiftly, the three become best friends, so inseparable that it verges on a sexual three-way, but not quite at intercourse. The boys want to sleep with Sandy, of course. Smart-ass, rather typical Dan, more intent to bang her than the more sensitive Peter, who suddenly feels badly when he bugs her to remove her top – and she does – discuss the coming-of-age query of “should they or shouldn’t they?” These conversations are between boys who are both insecure and confident – or in a more sinister view – boys who will ask or demand. Sandy is free with her body, unafraid to pull her top off or roll all over the hormone raging boys, her hormones raging as well, laughing and drinking and dancing; washing their hair, and in a dark movie theater, letting one feel up her breasts, while the other feels up her legs and up to her panties. It’s a bold, kinky scene, but not unlike many hot and horny teens pushing closer and closer to going all the way. The double grope is sexy to her, and she says so, she gets all the attention, while the boys are observant and even sophisticated enough to question whether she does this to merely flirt, or if she’s just that way and that’s fine. Even if it’s driving them fucking crazy, they’re friends, they play “trust” games and they’re not going to go somewhere creepy-dark. Until they do. All of them.

While occupied with their gull on the beach, which they’ve harnessed and are teaching to fly again, a plump 15-year-old in a dowdy bathing suit, one who looks very much not in their crowd approaches, demanding to know what they’re doing with that bird. Rhoda (Catherine Burns) is lonely and looking for friends, but bold and even bossy, enough to where Sandy tries to wave her off with, “Oh, go suck your mother’s tit!” Rhoda continues to harangue the kids who simply want her to go away, but she’s unyielding about the gull:  “You’ve traumatized him. You’ve taken away his sense of identity.  He doesn’t know he’s a bird anymore.  Well, look at him squatting there. He probably thinks he’s a crab…. He can’t help it, you’ve turned him into a schizophrenic!” It’s a fascinating introduction – part future Shelley Winters in her more tragic roles (like A Place in the Sun), part likable, intelligent voice of reason (they are making that bird crazy). You have no idea where this character is heading, but the Perry’s deepen her, giving her a complexity that’s beyond just the chubby girl who feels left out. Her mother is dead – recounted in a brilliant monologue where you can practically smell the booze and the salt water, where you can see the thinness of her mother, feel a man grasping Rhoda’s backside, all rolled into this vivid, heartbreaking recollection. (Burns was Oscar nominated for this performance) Rhoda even writes a column for her school newspaper called “Feelings,” which sounds corny as anything, but given her monologue, she’s likely a fine writer.


We will become wary of Sandy, if we weren’t already. She’s clobbered the gull’s head in, secretly (the boys find out), after the poor thing bites her. She’s upset that this damn gull turned on her after she saved his life, and so she simply kills it – either out of demented power, or hurt that anything could not love her, or both. (The novelist, Evan Hunter, also adapted Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, and I can’t help but think of the woman vs. birds subtext of that picture, and the one panic-stricken woman unfairly blaming the bird invasion on outsider Melanie Daniel, screaming: “I think you’re evil! Evil!”)  Here, Sandy demands and commands the gull: “I’m absolute ruler over your world and I have absolute power over you and what I say goes… Therefore when I say fly, you fly.” That sounds all tough-cute in the moment, perhaps, but it’s actually more fitting of her personality, which is revealed to be manipulative and cruel. Something is off and disturbed in her – or maybe she’s just not learned anything about empathy yet (her family life isn’t entirely stable, but then no one’s is) – or maybe she’s drunk on her feminine power. Whatever the case, the picture’s not going to give you an easy answer. Sandy and the boys put up with Rhoda, sometimes casually annoyed, or curious to see her in a funny situation and they set Rhoda up on one of Sandy’s self-humoring computer dates (with a sweet Puerto Rican man) whom they treat terribly. Rhoda is appalled by but remains “friends” with them, even as their silly games continue and, as smart as Rhoda is, she trusts them. Or is willing to. Again, she’s only 15-years old.


She even trusts them to teach her to swim, and they, or rather Richard sticks to the task. The kids think it’s weird she can’t swim (given that her mother drowned one can understand why she is scared), and Richard starts taking a more tender, romantic interest in her. In one moment, the two lie on the beach and he waxes poetic about the ocean: “Wait till you see how beautiful it is down there. The colors, the way the light shines on things. The plants. Just the shape of things. You know, even a piece of broken glass can be like an emerald! And the fish move, gentle, you know, nice  … You do everything I tell you to do. You learn how to swim, and you learn how to dive, and you know what?” Rhoda asks, “What?” And Richard declares, romantically, “I’m gonna kiss you at the bottom of the sea.” It’s lovely and heartfelt the first time you see it, and maybe it is, but watching it a second time when you know what happens to Rhoda, it seems a bit sinister: “You do everything I tell you to do.”  Richard’s small soliloquy reflects the shifting tones of the movie – poetic and pretty to subtly disquieting. By film end, Rhoda’s sexual “awakening” will not be her choice.

Last Summer was the Perry’s fourth collaboration, their first three: David and Lisa, about two mentally ill teenagers (one can’t stand touch, the other suffers a split personality, talking in rhyme, the other can’t speak), Ladybug, Ladybug, about school panic under nuclear attack, in which a 12-year-old girl locks herself in a refrigerator and suffocates, and then The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster), a transfixing, powerfully allegorical and disturbing adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. The direction was taken away from Frank Perry on that picture (an uncredited Sydney Pollack shot the rest) but what you see is another expression of their lyricism and cynicism that, through the early 60s and up until 1970, made them two of the most unique and fascinating independent filmmakers of that time. Probing the alienation and/or rot within adolescence or in the supposed stability of suburbia, or of marriage, they were a potent pairing – their partnership ended with their divorce (Frank went on to make films without Eleanor, notably Doc, Play It As It Lays, Man on a Swing, and Mommie Dearest). Their last film is one of their best, Diary of a Mad Housewife, an especially lacerating portrait of matrimony, which also weaves a dreamlike, almost mentally insane spell of both abuse and masochism.


Characters are trapped in the Perry’s films, literally, in refrigerators, or swimming pools, or in marriages and affairs giving no profound satisfaction or release. Burt Lancaster banging on the door of his empty house, as if he’s trying to break through to another consciousness or world (one he’ll never reach) while revealing how lonely and empty he feels, is a refrain in the Perry’s work. This all may sound incredibly depressing, but there’s a sly sense of humor to these pictures as well (Housewife in particular), a mordantly humorous touch that, at times, comes off like Sandy’s weird charm in Last Summer – disarming.


In Last Summer, Rhoda is lonely but she’s certainly not empty, and her emotions are right there on the surface. In this particularly cruel universe, that makes her prey to the socially dominant Sandy, Peter and Dan.  She’s a kid who, like Cheever’s memory, “peers into the lighted houses of contentment and vitality,” only the other kids in Last Summer aren’t exactly content. In the cinema of the Perrys, no one is.

From my piece that ran at the New Beverly

John Ashley & High School Caesar


From my piece that ran at the New Beverly

There’s an evocative scene in O’Dale Ireland’s juvenile delinquent B-grader High School Caesar that always sticks out to me as curious and near experimental. It’s not involving an oddly-crowded auto race or a pretty girl in a tight sweater or a leather-clad boy breaking a window after stealing a test (though that all occurs in the movie and sticks in one’s brain), no, it’s a short moment with a light fixture.  The handsome, bullying but well-organized Caesar of the title, Matt Stevens (heartthrob John Ashley), comes home after rigging his high school election for president and, upon walking into his parent’s large, lonely house, gazes up at a mini chandelier. It’s moving. Why, we wonder.  He wonders why. It makes a tinkling sound, heightening his loneliness.

Matt’s a delinquent, but he’s a rich kid, running the school like a little mafia, complete with leathered-up henchmen, threatening students, taking charge of pretty much everything (more than the teachers — adults are useless in this movie). He requires dues for dances, charges for stolen tests (smart) and makes promises to his creepy, gangly sidekick, the child-like Cricket (Steve Stevens). The big promise is the new cute blonde girl (Judy Nugent) everyone’s crushing on – for Cricket – no matter she finds him repulsive. Matt says Cricket can have her and so Cricket skulks around, waiting for his chance to nab her or romance her or whatever he plans to do with this chick. Cricket has no nerve when it comes to the girl, he can’t just tell her to come along now, so Cricket constantly brings up the rejection to Matt with a you-said-I-could-have-heeer whining.


Cricket’s not going to get her, however, even with his closeness to Matt.  And they are close – you see Matt frequently touch Cricket, even tenderly, putting his hand on his knee and treating him paternally, one might even infer something sexual going on between them. Do they even like girls? Matt seems bored by his Bardot-meets-Ronnie-Spector-looking girlfriend (sweater alert) played by a fetching Daria Massey, and he full-on slaps the sweet blonde. Instead of getting the girl, Matt gets caught up in dominating her, to the point of nearly raping the poor young woman in the car. Cricket bolts, not to help her, but because he lost his shot. He’s a coward and worse than Matt and are we supposed to like this kid when he rats out his friend? I don’t. In a hauntingly shot scene, the poor girl is left running through the woods, hiding behind trees and struggling to get the hell out of there.

But here’s Matt’s sadness. A grown-up teen, all hairy-chested and confident at school, he’s a secretly forlorn phantom in his own house. His parents are never present and they don’t send love, they send checks. The enormous estate he lives on is all his own save for a sweet, old lady cook he charms and a manservant he berates.  The servant appears to hate him (he knows he’s a supercilious jerk) but his cheery cook calls him down for breakfast (she knows he’s heartbroken) using the in-house intercom from his bedroom. He tells her to play music, “Well, you know what I like. You pick it out,” he says grandly as he reads the paper like a man, his collar turned up like an asshole, and out roars something that sounds like a second-rate Nelson Riddle orchestration. For a guy who loves rockabilly (the movie opens with its raucous theme song, “High School Caesar” sung by Reggie Perkins) this seems odd and purposeful by the filmmaker. It’s an interesting touch.

But back to that mini chandelier. This is the second time we’ve seen him arrive home and, again, his parents aren’t there. But not only are his parents not there, his servants aren’t either, and he calls for them. No answer. He looks up at the moving crystals, pealing with perhaps just the wind breezing in from the once-open door or… is something going on upstairs? That is what I always wonder, as he yells for life in the place, looking at this thing moving, taunting him, damn light fixture. Either his parents are upstairs stomping around, or having sex, or his weird servants are up to something naughty (come now, these movies want you to have a dirty mind), which would be a fantastic moment had the film went there. I’m not even sure if it’s suggesting any such thought because no one is there, but the picture lingers on it just long enough for us to ponder Matt’s peculiar panic. He runs to his room, turns on jazz music, angrily throws money at his tortured reflection in the mirror and collapses on his bed, crying. The camera closes in on his bronzed baby shoes. It’s a packed moment in a movie that is intriguingly empty, like avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold could have stepped in and started making characters disappear a la his re-imaging of The Invisible Ghost (Deanimated) with Matt wandering around reacting to random things, like that light fixture. “The Invisible Teenager.”
That is what’s fascinating when taking in some of these lower-budget movies – the unexpected moments and strangeness that occur, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, can create an artful effect. And it seems like the movie could go anywhere with talented, good-looking John Ashley in the lead – he’s morose and mean but likable and sympathetic enough for us to feel for him when he’s betrayed by his Brutus, A.K.A. Cricket. Ashley, a talented singer who cut some good singles with Dot Records, some with Eddie Cochran backing him up, and who sang in various pictures, (notably in Lew Landers’ AIP picture Hot Rod Gang, also featuring the great Gene Vincent) has both a swagger and depth here that shows he could have furthered his dramatic career in this moody mold. Instead, he had a full and interesting career (this man had stories) moving from 50’s AIP rebel and monster-movie boy; to a nice, small performance in Martin Ritt’s Hud; to AIP beach babe, appearing as Frankie Avalon’s best friend in the Beach Party movies (in an interview he noted how ridiculous he started to feel as a 30-year-old man playing teenager); to TV star (Straightaway) and memorable guest star (on The Beverly Hillbillies); to starring in and producing a series of Eddie Romero horror films made in the Philippines, starting with Brides of Blood in 1968. He also served as associate producer to Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House and producer and star of George Rowe’s Black Mamba, which featured a real corpse in an autopsy scene. Well, now, that’s beyond experimental. His 1958 picture, the stupid, surreal and surprisingly scary (I’m serious, the girl scares me) Frankenstein’s Daughter would approve.

Anything weird in those low budget teen pictures like High School Caesar makes venturing over to the Philippines (reportedly, Ashley high-tailed it after a nasty divorce) a perfect kind of strange sense. Why not? You want to break out of your acting mold? Do it.  And make some intense movies. Becoming an important figure producing and appearing in pictures like the Blood Island films, to Black Mama, White Mama, Ashley was there long enough and entrenched so thoroughly in the details of production that he became associate producer on one of the craziest, toughest shoots in film history – Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Even if he’s not in the movie, his exasperation with those Beach Party movies gives him a majestic closure: “Charlie don’t surf.”

Ashley did not stop there though. He produced the highly successful, now retro-beloved 80’s TV show, The A-Team, and even supplied his voice as narrator: “Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…” Yes, that’s him. The guy who once sang “Pickin’ On the Wrong Chicken” narrated The A-Team. It seems like a dream. Swirling all of this together, Ashley’s career is so varied and unusual and, in the end, profitable, that looking at his business maneuvers in High School Caesar, it’s no surprise that the Oklahoma-reared actor, supposedly spotted by John Wayne with a this-kid’s-got-something charisma, was such a natural.

And, in the end, so daring, so unafraid of making some of the silliest and outlandish and, in some cases, weirdest (and weirdly great) exploitation pictures.  

So, that light fixture in High School Caesar, that mysterious, distinctive shot in which Ashley expressed feeling and fear towards a clanging chandelier, merges just fine with the actor gazing at a yellow mist only to meet Satan, and then promptly selling his soul (in Eddie Romero’s absurd 1971 Beast of the Yellow Night).

It’s all a kind of art. And he saw merit in this. Asked why he was so successful in exploitation, Ashley said, “That’s an interesting question – I really don’t know. This is a terrible thing to admit, but maybe it’s that I always liked those movies.”

originally published at the New Beverly

Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 


"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...

Every Little Star -- Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr.
came to us haunted – a jilted starlet, a potential Magnificent Ambersons slash-up, a Barton Fink feeling refused for being too much a “Barton Fink” feeling. It was a rejected TV pilot, reportedly turned down for confusing narrative, actresses ludicrously deemed too old, disturbed images and Ann Miller sucking on a ciggie. By design, David Lynch was already echoing the Hollywood dream machine and movies reflecting our own dreams, those ghosts and futures, perhaps subconsciously, knowing all along this was to be a feature film fever dream. An overlapping reverie and reality; sex, suicide and silenco -- this is Peg Entwistle diving off that Hollywood sign and floating in a cloud of smiling female phantoms. It’s also America, the beautiful and the bizarre, its romanticism, dysfunction, cruelty and absurdity. We love movies. The world loves movies. But America’s often freakish, surreal desperation towards “glamour” when upturned can be as ugly and as horrifying as Winkie’s dream. And this masterpiece, Mulholland Dr., is as powerful and as prescient today, a lilting celluloid sickness real or imagined through the eyes of wide-eyed talent Betty (Naomi Watts, in a career-defining performance) turned to tragic Diane, angrily, heartbreakingly masturbating in a sad, sagging apartment.

It’s so gorgeous and so painful, so mysterious and in many ways, so recognizable (drive on the actual road, Mulholland, at night, and then walk from Western to Vermont, you’ll see…), that, whatever theory you ascribe to it, the picture does indeed reflect a reality that moves beyond the geography of Southern California and parks itself in our brains, tapping into our dreams, deepest fears, inscrutable natures, erotic desires, pool boys and dumped paint on jewelry.  Duality separates and intersects – just as W. H. Auden and James Ellroy oppositely entitled Los Angeles, for many of the same reasons, respectively: “The Great Wrong Place” and “The Great Right Place.” Well, we think we know one thing. We think: “This is the girl.”

Originally published at the BBC

Blood Milk & Bone: Patricia Highsmith

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Patricia Highsmith disliked food. Or, rather, she had a deeply problematic relationship with food that produced fascinating, unsettling musings, vividly intertwined with digestion and eating. Her short story, “The Terrapin,” in which a disturbed boy murders his mother with a kitchen knife after she boils a tortoise alive, Highsmith merged food issues with her own mother issues to a magnificently bent level of hysteria and horror: The dark side of domesticity. An anorexic in adolescence, and a slight woman her whole life, one who stocked liquor in her kitchen and nothing else, she found food tedious, frequently disgusting and even disturbing, blaming some of societal ills and politics on the results of food.  She wrote once: “the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up.”She pondered further, at another time, about how food affects us: “We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.”

That’s not a crazy supposition, really.

And yet, she loved a comforting warm glass of milk, something that would show up in The Price of Salt with a dreamy strangeness and a corporal sensuality. As she writes it, milk is a bit gross, but, romantic and powerful:

“Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears.”

This is just one aspect to the woman who was the oddity and sometimes genius named Patricia Highsmith, a cookie full of arsenic (if she heard it, she had to have appreciated the Odets/Lehman line of poisoned confection) who is full of so many contradictions that she is endlessly fascinating and frequently baffling. The preoccupation with the disgust for food shows a need for control, the drinking shows a need to let go—the push and pull of a hard heart and a woman full of passion—someone who both ran from and towards the voluptuous and often icky aspects of life. It’s not surprising that biographers (chiefly the great Joan Schenkar, whose gorgeously written and elucidating The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith greatly informed this piece) compared Highsmith to her most famous creation: Tom Ripley. Schenkar wrote, “Pat was back in the United States making her credo of  ‘quality’ the central obsession of the character who was to become, crudely speaking, her own fictional Alter Ego: Tom Ripley. (Pat was never ‘the woman who was Ripley,’ but she did give Ripley many of the traits she wished she had, as well as quite a few of her obsessive little habits.) Like Pat, Ripley began as a flunker of job interviews and a failure at self-respect. Like Pat, Ripley found his ‘quality’ of life in Europe.”

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After studying Highsmith’s life, you come away impressed, shocked, amused, and wondering if you could ever like this person. But liking her doesn’t matter; she didn’t want or need it necessarily – she’s not Willy Loman (Highsmith wrote in her diary of Arthur Miller’s character, “I find I have no sympathy for the individual whose spirit has not led him to seek higher goals … at a much younger age.”). She was a woman so intricate and so her own self (she couldn’t help but be her own self) that even she may not have understood how modern she was, or even fancied that idea (she loathed being pigeonholed).

Even by today’s standards, she’s still modern. Though she certainly wouldn’t have bandied a term like “feminist” around, she lived a progressive life, falling in love with women, never marrying to suit convention (though she did toy with the idea of marriage and with therapy for her homosexuality and, blessedly, that didn’t take), striving for both her own art and making good money while uttering some perfectly awful prejudices and then turning around and contradicting them. One of her best friends in high school was the young Judy Holliday (then, Judy Tuvim) and for decades Highsmith kept a photo of the Born Yesterday actress dressed in a man’s suit.

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There’s much discussion of Highsmith of late, all interesting, from Margaret Talbot’s excellent New Yorker piece about the real-life back story of  the brilliant Todd Haynes’ movie Carol to a New York Post headline screaming, “The drunk bisexual racist behind Cate Blanchett’s new movie.” All these years later, Highsmith is still pissing people off. 

Haynes’s superb, beautiful, and moving Carol, adapted from Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, had created the buzz and for good reason—it was one of the best-reviewed movies of that year, a much-needed woman’s picture, and a gorgeous universal story about two women falling in love, with each other. Though Carol features an aggrieved husband, this is a movie about women, one could say (to Highsmith’s likely cringing) a feminist picture about females finding themselves, their work, their sexuality, and mutual adoration in the less permissive time of ’50s New York City, subverting the rules society has placed on them. There’s something of Highsmith, who published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, in both older Carol and younger Therese, in her often highly dramatic relationships and yearning. For although she was a woman who wrote brilliantly about murder and sociopaths, and though she was a woman frequently remembered as grumpy, bizarre, and downright caustic, she confessed of a swooning heartache and dream that’s so stirring it makes you want to cry:

“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind.”

Her compulsions and contradictions were encyclopedic: food hater, snail lover, drinker, thinker, bigot, progressive, lover of women and younger women (rumor has it that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov’s Lolita). And yet, while she was the very definition of independent (as a single woman, she abandoned America for Europe, where she lived, off and on, for the rest of her life), she was also ruled by an intensely close and corrosive relationship with her mother.


According to Schenkar, Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a chronic and histrionic creator of domestic scenes “so dreadful that Pat had to call in Dr. Auld, the local physician, to sedate them both. Pat reported that Mary had threatened her with a coat hanger—and each woman said things the other never forgot. Four years earlier, Mary Highsmith had written to her daughter: ‘I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute’s thought.’”

Both a  sensualist and an obsessive-compulsive ascetic, Highsmith was a revolutionary: she lived a problematic, fascinating life as one would say a man would: complicated and sometimes unfathomable.

But then many women are like this, we just don’t hear or read about them as much. Or are allowed to admire them for it. At least for being odd. For all of her compelling complexities and provocative strangeness, even negative traits, I feel... the world and women need more characters.

originally published at the Daily Beast, 2015

50 Years of The Long Goodbye

I was honored to interview Elliott Gould at the New Beverly for Robert Altman's masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, for its 50th anniversary! 

It was a wonderful evening discussing on stage with Elliott who was, as usual, fascinating and charming and philosophical and the best. Still the coolest cat in the room. Thanks to everyone who came out! Thank you New Beverly and thank you so much Elliott.

Courry brand cat food forever.


Our discussion was not recorded, but here's my previous 2019 interview with Elliott on The Long Goodbye for the New Beverly.


Pre-Code Lubitsch

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My piece that ran at the Dissolve

“Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.”

What a stunningly erotic line; pleading for not only devotion, but also larceny, both monetary and sexual. And what a perfectly Lubitschian line, layered with meaning, hunger, sincere feeling, ironic humor, and even sadness. “Don’t leave me, but do steal, swindle, rob. And on top of that, stroke, seduce, and ravish me,” robber Lily (Miriam Hopkins) seems to be saying to her live-in lover, gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall), in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece Trouble In Paradise.

Most, possibly all, of the multiple themes of Lily’s romantic entreaty could apply to Lubitsch’s comedies made between 1929 and 1934, most co-scripted by Samson Raphaelson. (Though not his one drama of the period, 1932’s Broken Lullaby.) These movies offer not just a twist, but a twist atop a twist, and a joke atop the joke: the “superjoke,” as Billy Wilder called it. Those themes repeat: the lively, often-painful love triangle, the sexual and romantic jealousy, the thrill of sex, and in this case, the carnal kicks co-mingling with the art of stealing, an act more erotic than gold-digging. (Gold-fleecing is much more penetrating.) And then—important during one of the worst economic times in America’s history—there’s Lily and Gaston’s hard, artful work, something to respect, to take pride in.

Stealing is magical in Trouble In Paradise. Sleight of hand is more titillating than Don Juanery. (Don’t hook, darling: crook.) Prostitution is too easy, too boring—about as boring as marriage could possibly be in this world. Here’s the power and thrill of pre-Code Hollywood, propelled into elegant, inventive, intelligent orbit within the luminous world of Ernst Lubitsch.

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The Motion Picture Production Code was adopted under Will H. Hays in 1930, but not fully enforced until Joseph Breen got his mitts all over it. (“Pre-Breen” is a more appropriate term than “pre-Code,” Thomas Doherty writes in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, And Insurrection In American Cinema 1930-1934.) Pictures were submitted for review, Trouble In Paradise among them. Lubitsch was told to remove some of the more “scandalous” lines, including “Oh, to hell with it!” But countless movies flaunted the “Don’ts” and "Be-carefuls” the Code warned filmmakers about. Just a handful of the transgressions indulged in films ranging from scrappy Warner Bros. gangster pictures to glossy MGM melodramas: criminals getting away with it, sex before marriage, adultery, drug addiction, drunkenness, mockery of matrimony, and suggestion of nudity. (Check how many times Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dress and undress in William Wellman’s Night Nurse.)

6a00d83451cb7469e2019b0041b4cd970b-400wiFrom 1929’s innovatively crafted talking musical The Love Parade (Lubitsch’s first sound picture) up to 1934’s Code-rupturing threesome in Design For Living, Lubitsch worked strictly at sophisticated Paramount. (Also released in 1934, The Merry Widow was an MGM picture.) There, he became one of the studio’s top directors, a name audiences remembered just as they would Frank Capra’s—rare for a director at the time. For a brief spell, he was even Paramount’s Head Of Production, which, according to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, was possibly related to the director’s quiet turmoil once Breen took over, and Lubitsch needed to “get out of the line of censorship fire and take some time to figure out what to do.” After all, Lubitsch's comedies were about sex, love, joy, and the messy human complications that come from voluptuous adventure. Breen and the Catholic Legion Of Decency held such ardors suspect, a wicked playground for lotharios and trollops.

For Lubitsch, a romantic triangle or adultery wasn’t just the side story, it was often the central plot, making his pre-Breen pictures as gracefully scintillating as William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women or Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell. According to the Code (as quoted from Olga J. Martin’s Hollywood Movie Commandments, quoted in Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood), a love triangle needed “careful handling,” especially if “marriage, the sanctity of the home, and sex morality are not to be imperiled.” Furthermore, adultery was a forbidden subject and “never a fit subject for a comedy.” Lubitsch disagreed: He found it a comedic, musical, elegant, fantastical, oh so real-life.

1932’s One Hour With You concerns both triangles and adultery, and has its own sticky history between George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch. Originally assigned to direct One Hour With You, Cukor was doing such a frustrating job that the exacting Lubitsch took over the production, according to Eyman: “For the next six weeks, Cukor sat quietly on the set, drawing his salary, confining most of his conversation to expressions of approval after each Lubitsch-directed scene.” The result was a direction credit for Lubitsch, a lawsuit from Cukor, and a compromise with the added credit, “Assisted by George Cukor.” As Eyman wrote, “Lubitsch pictures could not be mass-produced.”

Despite the picture’s difficult production, it’s a fascinating, joyfully randy work about, yes, cheating. Colette (Jeanette MacDonald) is married to impish Andre (Maurice Chevalier), who can’t help but succumb to her horndog best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). He even sings his dilemma directly to the audience, praising his wife’s virtues while gleefully returning to the potential mistress with, “Ohhhh! That Mitzi!” When the deed is done, Andre again breaks the fourth wall and asks, in song, “What Would You Do?” inquiring of men—and, since this is Lubitsch, women, who aren’t exempt from the equation—how they would handle such a pickle: “Do you think you could resist her? Do you think you would have kissed her? Would you treat her like your sister? Come on, be honest, mister!”

Never mind that that the song explains and excuses his indiscretion; it’s so damn charming that viewers feel mischievously complicit with Andre. (I wonder how many couples gave each other the side-eye during his ode to adultery, or even a jab in the ribs.) Chevalier’s considerable Gallic delights help him get away with such things, but even us non-Chevaliers, we’re all human, we all transgress. Be honest. Grow up. Get over it.

And yet Lubitsch isn’t merely flip here; he understands the pain Andre and his Mitzi have caused the distraught Colette. Even Colette’s lovesick revenge kiss with poor Charles Ruggles (which becomes another amusing Lubitsch twist on deception) is tinged with sadness. She can’t even cheat properly! And Ruggles, well, he doesn’t have a chance next to that dashing so-and-so Chevalier. Pain presents itself in all Lubitsch’s comedies, with some characters standing on the precipice of tragedy.

In 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Chevalier’s Niki is forced to marry a besotted princess (Miriam Hopkins) after she mistakenly accepts his smile and wink, when in fact, he’s directing the amour to his girlfriend, beer-drinking band leader Franzi (Claudette Colbert). Stuck in an unhappy marriage with the ridiculously prim, innocent Princess Anna, Niki refuses to sleep with her, leaving her to play a sad game of checkers on the marriage bed with her blowhard father, King Adolf (a wonderful George Barbier), which is simultaneously hilarious and poignant. (The father-daughter relationship becomes increasingly touching as the movie progresses.) Franzi has tearfully left Niki with a garter to remember her by, but she later becomes his mistress, trysting with her lover while his wife putters around the palace, unfulfilled and heartbroken. This is a comedy musical?

Lubitsch goes even further. Once Anna discovers the affair, she summons Franzi to the palace. (In a kinky touch, Niki has been using the police to arrest Franzi and deliver her to their rendezvous spots.) The confrontation is surprising—both women flop on the bed to blubber their eyes out. Franzi realizes Anna is no enemy and takes pity on the square, surprisingly sweet princess, teaching her how to play a jazzy piano, wear silky négligées (to the tune of “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”), and let down her prissy, pinned-back hair. The mistress instructs the wife how to properly make love to the man the mistress loves. Well, they both love him, but someone has to get their man. The princess reigns (although she’s much less self-sufficient than Jeanette MacDonald’s Queen Louise in The Love Parade, or Countess Helene Mara in Monte Carlo), and Lubitsch allows sacrificial Franzi a mournful exit with the self-defeated, undeserved line, “Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”

Perhaps this is a flawed, too-easy resolution to the aching triangle, but it’s also an ironic twist. It’s the aforementioned “superjoke.” With The Smiling Lieutenant, Wilder perceived the superjoke as “the wrong girl gets the man.” Some joke. And yet it works, leaving viewers with the shot of Colbert dejectedly waving from behind her back so Niki and Anna can dig into their final scenes of jazzed- and juiced-up foreplay, and finally, a whole lot of sex. Poor Franzi. It was fun while it lasted.

In Trouble In Paradise, the short but memorable affair is not only fun—if that is the right word for a thing so elegant—it could have been marvelous, Gaston says. “Divine,” agrees Mme. Colet. But what can transform such smooth, dreamy sophistication into something clumpy and common? The cops. And so Mme. Colet, knowing Gaston intended to rob her but has fallen in love with her, watches him flee into the night with his other lover. She’s understanding enough to allow him to nab her pearls as a parting gift for Lily, and like Franzi in The Smiling Lieutenant, she’s left alone. Such is life. Gaston and Lily ride away in a cab, culminating their sex-as-stealing one-upsmanship, with Gaston grabbing Mme. Colet’s stealthily snatched wad and stuffing it into Lily’s purse. That purse sits on her lap, or, if one wants to be Freudian about it, between her legs.

And so the crooks get away with it. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte and James Cagney’s Tom Powers would have been impressed, had they lived. Even they have to pay for their crimes in pre-Code films—but what spectacular endings those two were granted. Gaston and Lily aren’t gangsters or killers; they’re aristocrats incognito (the reverse of Jack Buchanan’s sweet incognito hairdresser in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, also released in 1931.) But they do indeed break that bendable code by making lawlessness so sumptuously attractive that pickpocketing is not only exceptionally suave, but synonymous with sex.

And yet within this dreamscape so graceful that it feels musical, with its fluid panning shots, meaningful use of clocks, knowing shadows on beds, superbly climbed staircases and perfectly timed edits, is a waft of Depression-era actuality. Gaston gently complains, “You have to be in the Social Register to keep out of jail. But when a man starts at the bottom and works his way up, a self-made crook, then you say, ‘Call the police! Put him behind bars! Lock him up!’” Reading that, not with Herbert Marshall’s exquisite cadence in mind, and instead with James Cagney’s rat-a-tat pugnacity—well, the two men could have shared a drink together. Marshall may have seen too sophisticated, too elitist for Cagney, but he wasn’t a snob. And between the two of them, they had the streets and boudoirs covered. And even better in Lubitsch-land, in which a bit part is often allowed a big moment, they could have invited the fellow who contributes to Trouble In Paradise’s famous opening shot, the garbage-man gondolier.

The love triangle is nearly solved in Lubitsch’s most liberal and, to many, still-shocking pre-Code film: 1933’s extraordinary Design For Living, adapted from Noël Coward’s play and co-scripted by Ben Hecht. It features Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper as three Americans living in Paris. Quickly, as people this attractive and likable so easily do, they fall for one another. All of them. Hopkins’ Gilda makes love to both George (Cooper) and Tom (March), but how can that continue? And what to do? Gilda the proto-feminist declares her conundrum: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.” Well, which hat will she choose? She makes it easier. “Both,” she answers.

The triangular remedy is that they’ll live together under one roof, in supposed platonic bliss. All three shake on it, with the provocative decree: “No sex. A gentleman’s agreement.” No sex? In Lubitsch? Well, that will make for some especially thick sexual tension, and an impossible utopia. When Tom leaves for London, lovelorn Gilda and George inch closer and closer with intensely palpable sexual yearning. Thankfully, Gilda tears right through it: “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

But she does have a heart, and eventually, she can’t contribute to the bust-up of these two best friends. Entering complacent safety by marrying dreary Mr. Sensible, Edward Everett Horton’s Max Plunkett, she abandons her bohemian life. In a move that would barely make it into a comedy today, Tom and George track down Gilda and rescue her from marital suffocation. And that’s it: She leaves her husband for not one, but for two men. She may as well have given what Charles Laughton delivers at the finale of “The Clerk” (1932), Lubitsch’s contribution to the omnibus film If I Had A Million– a raspberry.

And as in the end of Trouble In Paradise, they flee in a cab, only this triangle remains intact, and facing an uncertain, doubtlessly drama-filled future. How thrillingly radical, heartfelt, precarious, and sexy this all is. And the production code? You can practically hear it smashing like a mirror dropped on a marble floor.

No other Lubitsch pre-Code film could match the audacity of Design For Living, until recently considered flawed or even minor Lubitsch. A disappointment upon release, Design For Living was deemed a poor adaptation of Coward’s play, and Cooper (who is terrific) too rough and unrefined. Over time, though, the picture has collected fervent defenders and, in 2011, a lovingly issued Criterion edition (for which I wrote the essay).

Smooth Chevalier returned to Lubitsch with 1934’s The Merry Widow, the director’s most opulent, effervescent musical. It’s also darker and more reflective, with an intriguingly somber tone threaded through its merriment. Though the picture received mixed reviews, and wasn’t an enormous American hit (it did better in Europe), the New York Times effused, “It is a good show in the excellent Lubitsch manner, heady as the foam on champagne, fragile as mist and as delicately gay as a good-natured censor will permit.”


Well, the censors didn’t permit about three minutes of it, with numerous cuts to deflect from the fact that Chevalier’s playpen was indeed a whorehouse. But viewers knew, and know, what it is, and they know what Chevalier’s Captain Danilo is doing there with his “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (This isn’t a triangle, but an orgy.) He does, however, fall for one girl—Jeanette MacDonald’s Madame Sonia—and goes so far as to romantically proclaim a promise of marriage at the end the picture. And it is romantic. Was Joseph Breen, now chief of the Production Code Administration, swayed by that French rouge? Was he wooed?

The Merry Widow marked the last Chevalier/MacDonald collaboration, and a new era for Lubitsch. Masterpieces were ahead (NinotchkaThe Shop Around The CornerTo Be Or Not To Be), all with that endlessly mentioned Lubitsch touch, but his pre-Code pictures are rebellious wonders. These movies weren’t getting away with murder, no, but their flesh-and-blood raciness, their erotic, elegant triangles were enough to make Breen clutch his killjoy pearls.  May we, courtesy of Gaston, offer Mme. Colet’s?


Originally published at The Dissolve